Confidence is a poor judge

I am becoming increasingly convinced that confidence is a poor judge of quality. At least for me. 

A few days ago I had to write a short statement for a group discussion. After a couple of hours of work I had written about 400 words, and felt quite proud of myself. I rehearsed the statement a couple of times in my head and closed my laptop. Job done. 

The same night, I had the chance to try out some of the arguments with a person sitting next to me at dinner. I barely made it though the main point that she had already spotted a big flaw. I ended up throwing away the entire thing. 

The opposite happens as well, with similar frequency. There are times where I have an idea, an hypothesis, or maybe the beginning of a theory and I feel pretty bad about it. It seems unoriginal, weak and poorly formed. In these situations, I tend to shelf my drafts or keep my thoughts to me, but the times when I end up sharing them - reluctantly - I am often surprised about the outcome. 

Why does this happen? It can be that I am simply a very bad judge or my own ideas. But there is probably more to it. It has to do with pushing our boundaries and doing something uncomfortable. 


When we are easily satisfied about something we have done, it is likely because we have uncovered something obvious. It doesn’t matter how original it may seem. Our subconscious recognises a pattern and clicks. 

On the other hand, being unhappy about what we have created doesn’t mean it is all necessarily bad. A possible explanation is that we simply can’t see what we have done. We are far from having a complete picture, and that’s what causes the unhappiness, but we might have uncovered something worth of someone else’s attention. When we share these imperfect yet potentially interesting ideas, other people are able to see through the imperfection and spot the interestingness. 

Overconfidence pollutes all residual points of interest. Insecurity allows the receiver to see through our unfinished work and surface its potential.  

Here is a short "note to self": 

When very confident about an idea or theory, doubt yourself. Test it with someone as soon as possible and be prepared for re-writing. 

When unhappy about an idea or theory, don’t throw it away immediately. Let it linger a bit, share it with a few persons you trust and whose feedback you respect. If it is indeed bad, they will tell you. But you might also discover that under you insecurity there is a diamond in the making. 




Don't consider, try

I often catch myself using the verb "consider" when putting down a note on something I am working on or when given feedback on someone else's work. What I mean - following Cambridge Dictionary - is: "spend time thinking about a possibility". 

This may seem an innocent advice, even a good one. What's wrong with pondering an action, mulling over a potential alternative or simply spending time considering the value of a certain proposal? 

To answer this question, compare these two sentences from a note I added while reviewing a presentation I was working on:

a) "Consider moving this slide earlier in the presentation."

b) "Try moving this slide earlier in the presentation."

Sentence a) achieves nothing. It notes that something could be done different but leaves the decision for later. Something didn't feel right, we now know about it, and the thought of it is hanging there in the back of our mind bothering our subconscious without moving anything forward. It's like snooze, but for our brain. 

There are many situations where it is good to postpone a final decision, but even in that case, what will this help me do? If I move on to other things and then get back to this presentation will I have made a better decision? Leaving out something hanging like this adds little value and comports a cognitive load. 

Sentence b) is much better. It maintains all the benefits of an open and delayed decision but eliminates all the negatives. It carries within itself the solution to our doubts. By trying out the change, we can experience how it would feel and we will then be in a much better position to decide what to do. 

There are two interesting aspects to this:

1. The first relates to a shift from scarcity to abundance. The idea of thinking before doing - intended as in this example, not as a prevention of impulsive acts - is part of the legacy of an age of scarcity where actions are very material and often irreversible. On the other hand, in a situation of abundance - like writing (words or code), and digital production in general - the risk, and cost of experimentation is much lower. It is, therefore, preferable to act and test rather than assume we can find the answer to a question through endless debates in a meeting room or by just letting it sink in our head. 

2. The second one is about giving good feedback. If we use "consider", we leave all the weigh of the decision to the other person. Acting from a position of superiority, we instill doubt and then move on. But we don't get our hands dirty, we don't take any risk or expose ourselves to failure - not even the failure of our advice. Good feedback should be direct: "move this slide to the top". Sometimes this is not possible; we just don't know what's best or we don't want to "impose" a decision. In these cases, framing the advice in terms of trying is the best choice. It suggests an action while leaving the door open for evaluation: "try moving the slide, then see how it feels and decide by yourself". 

This achieves the right balance between actionable feedback and leaving the person in charge - as it shold be.

 

Sceptical boldness

(Toughts in progress - I plan to turn this into a longer post at a later point)

A couple of days ago I was biking home listening to a podcast. As the guest was going through his vision of the future I couldn’t stop being aware that I wasn’t able to believe. It was not that I didn’t agree with him - after all, it is all pure speculation - just that I simply couldn’t see that vision materialising. 

With this thought stuck in my head, I began thinking of many other similar situations. I generalised on twitter, and went on with my things. 

As I woke up, a small debate had started around my tweet. My friend Stefano commented that “not being able to believe” makes it hard to be an investor. Malcolm Ocean chipped in with a different view. I agree with him. I don’t consider believing a necessary condition for action. 

My point of departure is that of a sceptic. Maybe not always, maybe not in all fields, but I definitely find myself often in situations where I am the sceptic in the room. And yet it would be difficult to argue that I am risk averse, hesitant, indecisive, or that I don’t follow dreams, that I don’t get excited about wild projects.

So, apparently, I am able to reconcile non-believing and acting. But if not a belief, something else must be there to motivate my actions, to give me energy. Actually, I am quite prone to get excited, and if I think about it, I could even be accused of being gullible, at least at first impression. In fact, I am actually a sucker for narratives. 

What makes a narrative different than a belief? A narrative is a logical/plausible argumentation of a hypothetical future 1. You can believe in a narrative but I distinguish a narrative from a belief by the fact that a belief is more intuitive - instinctive even - while a narrative requires at least the appearance of a logical argumentation. 

I say “the appearance” because I am not claiming here that a narrative is necessarily superior from a “truthiness” point of view to a belief. Both can be right and both can be wrong. But a narrative has a superior argumentative content. A narrative will include a concatenation of assumptions which, individually, can be analysed as sub-narratives, until we find simple statements that can be evaluated and, eventually, confirmed or disproven. A belief has inferior argumentative power than a narrative and rests on statements like “that’s inevitable” or “is in the nature of things” and similar. 

There are then situations where forming a narrative is not possible, but we can find nonetheless a reason to act. I can see two of these. The first one is hedging. Hedging happens where situations of low probability - true or perceived - can generate high costs or large missed gains. In these cases, the main motivation is regret minimization or loss avoidance. Hedging, though, is very passive in nature and doesn’t generate sufficient energy for prolonged action. There is simply not enough conviction in a hedging argument to motivate anything more than a one-off effort, for example placing a monetary bet or buying an insurance. Nobody builds a company as part of a hedging strategy2.

A second non-narrative, non-belief form of action is generated by “what-if” statements. This is essentially a matter of curiosity. What-ifs are what side projects are typically based on. Side projects lack belief and/or narrative (depending on which type of person you are) to become full-time projects but have stronger energy than mere hedging activities. Sometimes, side projects generate sufficient conviction - for example by confirming an assumption that can then become the backbone of a new narrative - to become full-time projects. In the interim, the previous full-time project - like a full-time job - moves from being the main narrative to being a pure hedging strategy. When this happens, there is simply too little energy to continue properly. These are the cases where people go to work and end up working on their side project all the time, until either they get caught - and likely fired - or they quit. Eventually, even the hedging is dropped or substituted for another less action-intensive hedging. 

The investing side of what-if actions is optionality. Investors will at times make bets where there is no belief and no narrative if the upside of something realising its hypothetical potential is high enough to justify the bet and the effort - and risk taking - that goes into it. In the investor case, the difference between optionality and hedging is not that pronounced, but it is still a different thing. Optionality is about keeping a door open for future action. It is a bit like procrastinating until stronger conviction kicks in - like in the case of side projects - while hedging is mostly a one-off event to then move on. 

It is often said that the ability to suspend disbelief is a key trait of entrepreneurs and investors, especially the most visionary ones. Suspending disbelief doesn’t necessarily mean believing. For non-believers, it all boils down to our degree of scepticism. St. Thomas had to touch before he could actually believe - he was an absolute sceptic, he could not suspend disbelief. Pascal found a logical trick to justify believing without believing - he was hedging. The scientific method allows us to proceed by series of guesses, as long as we are willing to test their validity by attempting to falsify them. The suspension of disbelief does not require the suspension of reason. A sceptic can also be brave.

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1 It can also be an explanation/rationalisation of present or past events, but this is not so relevant for this discussion.

2 This is why most “cover your ass” corporate innovation/disruption initiatives fail - you basically hope them not to happen.

The unbundling of home

I was recently asked, after coming back from a vacation, if I consider "home" to be in Italy or in Copenhagen. 

It is a simple question, but not an easy one to answer for many people in 2017. I have been in Denmark for 9 years, Copenhagen is the city where I live, work, where my kids go to school (2 out of 3 were born here) and where most of my things are. Yet, after all this time, every time I go to Italy I find myself invariably saying that I am going "home". Even when, like in my last visit, the place I am going to is more than 1000 km from the place where I was born and spent most of childhood. Reflecting more about it, I don't recall having used "home" to talk about Denmark even though I am pretty sure to have used the word "casa" which is the Italian equivalent but without the strict separation offered by the English language between the physical place and the emotional one. 

What is "home" then? 

As it happens often these days, it seems a case of a word describing a bundle of concepts which used to be together but are currently being unbundled. We have "home" the cultural place we belong to (Italy in my case), home the place where we live, home the place we grew up, etc. For most people, and most of the time, all these places used to be located in the same place. Today this is less and less the case. 

It will be interesting to see if our language will evolve to describe this new reality or if we will simply go on using one word for many things and many places. I thrive in ambiguity, so count me in on that.


Two kinds of contradiction

Most arguments and disagreements stem from using the same word for multiple things. One of these words is "contradiction". 

A person might contradict herself if she says something about a topic which doesn't apply to another one. For example, I can be a staunch defender of freedom of speech when it comes to my political faction, but I might take a more punitive position when the "freedom" to be defended belongs to my antagonist. 

Another form of contradiction is the one that happens over time: I say something today that contradicts with something I used to say, or believe, in the past. There is a famous video out there showing the (many) instances when Steve Jobs contradicted himself. Or rather, his previous self. 

The first type of contradiction is bad. At best it is a glitch. Normally, it is pure hypocrisy. The second one is not only excusable, it is recommended. I hope to be able to learn something as I move along in my life and there is no better way of showing that than contradicting with your previous self. 

I will start using two different expressions going forward: parallel contradiction (bad) and sequential contradiction (good). 

In love of hopelessness

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” — Albert Camus, Sisyphus

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting room together with the cofounders of a company we had been working on for almost two years. Despite some promising signs and a lot of effort, the product had failed to show any visibile traction. We had agreed a month earlier to look for alternative directions and there we were, sitting together in the moment of reckoning. The painful conclusion loomed heavy in the room: it was time to throw in the towel.

This is not one of those “why we failed posts”. I am not a big fan of them, but that’s another story[1]. No, what that episode got me thinking about is how hard it is for us to see meaning in our failed attempts. How consuming the act of trying is.

At Founders, we have always stressed the advantage of being able to separate what you are working on from who you are: that companies can fail but people shouldn’t. Four years in, this remains an assumption. In real life, we have noticed that once a company goes down it’s just too difficult to immediately jump back on the saddle.

I was talking to one of the co-founders and suggesting a bunch of other things he could try. From my privileged point of observation, I couldn’t understand what was so difficult in seeing as a “normal” job the process of trial and error until finding something that works. Listening to his replies, I realised that what is daunting is not failing, it is spending a life searching.

The real issue with product market fit

Product market fit is a fickle concept. It can be lost, it keeps moving, and contrary to popular belief, things don’t get magically easier once you get there. Yet, even discounting for its vague definition, it is fair to talk about life before and after product market fit.

Founders who have been through it describe it as an “emotional grind”, telling stories of stress, loss of sleep, loss of weight (and, even worse signs of mental and physical distress). It is more than just the hard work. Hard work itself becomes a relative concept depending on where the company is. Burnout is not a function of time, but one of movement. Forcing something that doesn’t work drives burnout, while the excitement for having (finally) found something that people want pushes everybody to give more.

We have been in this situation multiple times, and watched others doing the same. There is something exhausting about the uncertainty, the lack of positive feedback, the feeling that you are not progressing but endlessly circling back. It is a state of mind worse than the fear of failure, to the point that throwing the towel starts to be seen as a liberation. Not the dreaded moment where the world crumbles on you, but a break from the pain of futility and hopelessness.

The feeling of uncertainty, not the fear of failure, is also what blocks most people from getting started. It shows up as the perceived need to find a good idea, to validate the problem, to eliminate risk — all before jumping in. The big fear is finding out that we are toiling in vain, spending days, weeks, months on something no one wants. It is a vicious cycle: we don’t want to start before we know what will work, but without starting there is little chance to discover what that is.

Successful startups are built by two types of people: those who know how to manage the search and those who are naive enough not to care about it. We can keep relying on the latter, but we would be doing a good job if we could create more of the former. More specifically, we have to build a case for trying.

An economic case for trying

At the individual level, a lucid argumentation for trying comes from Paul Graham. In “After the Ladder”, he makes an important observation about the (micro)economics of a predictable career:

Economic statistics are misleading because they ignore the value of safe jobs. An easy job from which one can’t be fired is worth money…

The near-certainty of a long, uninterrupted career, followed by a generous pension is comparable, in NPV terms, with scoring a big financial win early on in our life. The social pact between employers and employees around the ladder made it rational to forgo the allure of a potential big win for the stability of a steady job. Conversely, if this promise disappears it would be far more rational to attempt reaching long term financial safety by making the most of our wealth early in our life[2].

We are accustomed to see our working life as a linear progression. We start humbly but expect to see our position and wealth grow over time. This approach has multiple implications. Betting our lives on careers means jumping on whatever is most in demand at that point of time. Our only reference to project a career path is to look at others who have been through it. By definition, it means betting on careers that are already 20–30 years old. In addition, our expectation for increased wealth pushes us for upgrades as we climb the ladder. In doing so we commit ourselves to a certain life, entangled in debt and irreversible choices.

Embracing a life of searching can seem irresponsible. Even Paul Graham limits his comparison to the extreme cases: the safe job and the early win. There are lives in between. Careers assumed to be safe are ended abruptly leaving people in shock, unable to stand up again. Others keep searching for that win, but never find it. What choice is better? Trying provides the optionality that careers remove. It allows us the early slack to focus on what’s coming instead of what has been. It keeps options open and burn rate low. As the two tracks progress, the economic value of a career is locked down, the range of outcomes ever narrower. Continuous searching, even the unfruitful kind, leaves that door open for serendipity.

Despite the obvious risks, trying can be a rational economic choice for the individual. Its value, however, becomes even more apparent when we turn our attention to the aggregate, the macro.

We all understand intuitively that an economy of outliers favours a portfolio approach. Over many bets, one will yield disproportionate returns, covering for all the rest and more. We use metaphors like racing and natural selection, pointing to the fact that many attempts are required to produce a winner. But we often fail to appreciate the real meaning of “required”.

Natural selection, in particular, is often misunderstood. When talking about “survival of the fittest” we get the idea that the fittest can exist in isolation, that all other players are background actors in a movie that doesn’t need them. The need for a portfolio is driven by our inability to see through the noise and identify the fittest. We wouldn’t need a portfolio if we could predict the future. That’s an illusion. When we focus all our attention on the outcome of evolution we overlook the process at the core of it. Biological life is a learning machine. Each attempt contributes to the whole, revealing closed paths and indicating open ones for others to pursue.

Learning from biology, we can understand economies as evolutionary systems driven by a process of selection, variation and replication:

“Evolution creates designs, or more appropriately, discovers designs through a process of trial and error. A variety of candiate designs are created and tried out in the environment. Designs that are successful are retained, replicated, and built upon, while those that are unsuccessful are discarded.”
”From the perspective of an entrepreneur or a new entrant starting in the low valley of a new architecture, there are lots of ways up and many new, untried peaks to explore. Most attempts up from the entrepreneurial valley will wind up in dead-end canyons or on disappointing short peaks. But with enough explorers working away, someone will eventually find an attractive route up.
Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth

This collective climb is not a race between unrelated individuals. It reminds me more of this scene from World War Z where zombies step on top of each other to climb the wall.

The question now is: what’s in it for the zombies at the bottom of the pyramid?

A modern Sisyphus

That’s where Sisyphus come in. There is a meme going around the web comparing a day in the life of corporate to that of a startup. We can skip the corporate guy in his hamster wheel and focus on the startup guy. He is depicted pushing a boulder up the hill, a clear reference to the myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to carry a stone up a mountain just to see it rolling down again soon after.

I have seen these meme many times, recently in this tweet.

The issue with trying lies in the comment: “One gets you somewhere”. The truth is that most of the time it doesn’t. We miss the second half of the image, the downslope. Pretending to find relief from our Sisyphean toil in the hope of a result is perpetuating the same illusion at the root of our discomfort. What makes the search so miserable is precisely the expectation of progress, and the consequent feeling of despair when we realise that our work is without hope.

The solution lies instead in accepting our fundamental condition. For the French philosopher and existentialist Camus, Sisyphus is the ultimate hero. He has mastered the absurdity of a life without purpose and can now face his destiny with joy. As he walks back down the hill to pick up the boulder once again, Sisyphus is perfectly conscious of his fate. He resists despair not because he has hope, “to get somewhere”, but because he knows has not got anywhere.

“Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

You must try.


[1] Rationalisation doesn’t bring me solace from pain and I agree with the position that considers failure an overrated source of learning. Yes, we made errors and we picked the wrong turn in multiple places of the maze, but anything I could write here wouldn’t increase your chances of succeeding in the same space. Graveyard bias is not much better than survivor bias.

[2] This includes both starting a company and joining one very early (before product market fit)

The contrarian

The contrarian lives in the twittersphere,

Thousands like truths he alone believes

The contrarian says you should speak your mind,

Bhe is the first to criticize when you get it wrong

If contrarian is a badge that you wear like a pin 

Don't feel ashamed if it feels like a fraud.

But if "contrarian" is a word you don't even know what it means,

It may well be the contrarian is you. 

The human virus

In one of those serendipitous encounters that make life more enjoyable, I recently found myself reading "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark

As an Italian, I studied my good deal of Roman and Christian history at school but I had never grasped how incredible, and totally non-obvious, an achievement was for this "obscure Jesus cult" to take over one of the vastest empires in history in merely 300 years. The question sets the scene for an exciting read, but on top of that, the author does an incredible job in keeping it condensed within 200 pages of clear sociological explanations without tedious enumeration of facts. I recommend the book to everybody interested not only in this specific chapter of human history but in the broader topic of how disruptive social and cultural change happens.

At the core of the book lies a simple yet ofter overlooked fact: any movement or phenomenon that can keep growing at a steady rate for a sufficiently long period of time will become dominant. Compound growth, as noted by Einstein (apocryphally) is the most powerful force in the universe. That's the obvious part. The non-obvious one is how to maintain said growth rate.

In Christianity's case, it was essentially a matter of "fit". Multiple aspects of the emerging faith made it the perfect killer of the incumbent Greek-Roman tradition. From the focus on family and procreation (amidst a largely unmarried and low natality population) to the commitment to charitable endeavours (which made the Christian population more resistant to epidemics), to their openness and ability of assimilation.

History takes often unique turns and we have no guarantee that the outcome would be the same if we could replay it from the start. The history of Christianity shows, however, that certain innovations are simply too powerful to be stopped. It seems like nothing is changing, until it changes forever.


The ephemeral pleasure of consistency

Among the many pearls we received from the mountains of Davos, this list of things successful people do in the morning is probably the best one.

Leaving the ridiculous aside, the list points to a growing phenomenon: being it meditation, the five-minute workout, or writing (like in my case), daily rituals are becoming synonymous with living an efficient and successful life.

Since beginning blogging regularly I have struggled with balancing between the painful pleasure of embarking in long posts and the satisfaction in the discipline of daily writing. A couple of months ago I have started my own small ritual: I wake up at 6 am, prepare coffee and start writing. By 6:45, when it is time to wake up the kids, I have to hit "publish". Considering travel, weekends (where I try to focus on longer posts) and the occasional oversleeping, I have done quite well, 32 posts in 60 days.

The original idea was to compartmentalise my writing, short in the morning and long, well, some other time. What seemed to have happened instead is an increase in complacency and a decrease in writing quality. Beyond the natural constraints of time-boxing, imposing a daily habit has given room to a certain complacency that is impacting negatively my ability to embark on longer, more ambitious projects. Is my writing habit - along with all other habits - just another form of instant gratification?

Treacherous pleasure

Daily rituals appeal to our desire to be disciplined and consistent. They also allow us to turn ambitious long-term goals, like getting into better physical shape, into manageable bites. Getting something done every day is a real booster for self-confidence, but the main question remains whether they actually work.

When I started my (semi-)daily writing habit I did it for two reasons. I wanted a place to capture my thoughts and, in turn, develop a better noticing muscle. Twitter is quite good at that but its mechanics make it little rewarding if you don't have a lot of followers. The alternative would be to work through that first, but that's a bigger goal and it will eliminate the purpose of a manageable daily activity. Writing in short form - around 500 words per post - offered me a sweet spot. It is something I can manage do achieve almost every day (discipline) and gives me a strong sense of accomplishment, way more than a tweet. It felt good, for the first few weeks.

Athletes know though that muscles become lazy when you keep repeating the same workout. It is an inevitable drawback of being an amazing learning machine. Every time an exercise is repeated, our body learns how to go through it in a more efficient way. The intensity of the effort diminishes and while the mental benefits persist (you keep patting yourself on then back just for showing up). Progress reaches a plateau.

Writing differs from exercising in that the aim is to create something finite and not "simply" keep the brain active. Sticking to a daily routine is even more treacherous, there is a wide gap between our long-term goals - which might be to use writing for insight generation or more mundanely to create an audience - and the short-term pleasure of hitting "publish" every day. No sequence of short posts can deliver the sort of "insight porn" both readers and writers can attain when pushing the limits of quantity in a non-mechanical way (listicles not allowed).

Ultimately, it is a matter of patience and deferred pleasure. The more we train our brain to its daily shot of accomplishment-induce endorphin, the more we become addicted to it. Daily habits are popular because they deliver on their promise: they make life look simple and us look good, a seven minutes workout is all we need to be in shape. Deeper down, they give us the illusion that we can avoid schlep.

Schlepping through time

All important endeavours have something in common: they involve a lot of schlep. The issue is that most of us (all probably) have an innate tendency to avoid it, to live in the hope that something beautiful can come out by sole act of conceptualising it.

"No one likes schleps, but hackers especially dislike them. Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in—without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people's broken code. Maybe that's possible, but I haven't seen it." Paul Graham

The sad reality is one where no shortcuts exist. You cannot think of a decent long from post by planning it, just in the same way no truly successful startup can be "designed" at the drawing board before actually starting. It is this inevitable uncertainty that blocks us from embarking on long projects. The inability to clearly see the end and defer gratification. It doesn't matter that we have memory of accomplishing something before (although it helps), the fear of wasting time is too strong.

The same is true, in particular, for a lot of complex skills where the learning curve is flat, long and painful. My personal weakness is thinking that I can learn myself out of rookie status, that reading up will make me a better writer, developer (that I have barely started), etc. It is probably an inherited theory-fetish I got from school. "Deliberate practice", the only way to get there, is a much harder and schleppy activity. It's the tedious repetition of sub-skills until you have mastered them and then move to a new one.

How do we then accept "schleppy work"? How do we "defer gratification and accept, even seek out, a degree of pain based on the no-pain-no-gain heuristic."

A random walk in Melee Island

In my case, the answer came from a surprising place: the (almost) forgotten world of adventure games. Adventure games were a big thing in the late 80's and in the 90's but they slowly lost appeal among gratification-starving gamers. Why did it happen?

One school of thought tends to blame the invincible trend of shortening attention spans. Why should we spend hours wandering through an imagined world with basically no direction, poking around, asking questions and trying to solve puzzles just to get ahead in the game? You can find scores of adventure games fans ranting about this online.

"Today all the games act like you have the attention span of a hamster and if shit isn't shooting and you or exploding for longer than 20 seconds you'll fall asleep".

A better explanation blames adventure games themselves (or better designers of adventure games). Many of them simply took the exercise too far, making a fetish out of the complexity of solving puzzles, forgetting that the actual value for the player is in going through a journey, following the plot to the end.

Great adventure games are open-ended and challenging without being frustrating. In its 1989 manifesto, Ron Gilbert (the mind behind Monkey Island and many other memorable adventure games) listed the principles to make adventures games that don't suck. In the opening paragraph he defines the type of games he set out to make:

"I enjoy games in which the pace is slow and the reward is for thinking and figuring, rather than quick reflexes."

A key aspect of that is keeping the user in a state of suspension of disbelief:

"As designers, our job is to keep people in this state for as long as possible. Every time the player has to restore a saved game, or pound his head on the desk in frustration, the suspension of disbelief is gone. At this time he is most likely to shut off the computer and go watch TV, at which point we all have lost."

When you wander through the street of Melee Island, you have an overall awareness of your goals but the rest you discover by poking around, talking to the different characters, picking up stuff. It is fun to watch someone trying playing the game today (I recently introduced it to my 11 years old daughter), the first reaction is to ask "what am I supposed to do?".

Initially, it will be difficult to measure your progress. You visit the SCUMM bar and notice that the cook often comes out from the kitchen and walks into the main room (leaving the door open behind him), the prisoner at the local jail has a terrible breath and a weird looking individual is trying to sell you obviously fake maps. As you play along, some people will help you (let's call it, the muse). You will learn that you need to distract the dogs guarding the governor house, and you will remember about the piece of meat you have seen in the kitchen. You'll be told that one of your trial consists of digging up the famous treasure of Melee Island(TM) and you'll realise that map wasn't so bad after all. The shopkeeper will offer you some mints, and when you give that to the prisoner you'll make a useful friend for later stages in the game.

In a well-made adventure game, progress is the sum of small, apparently meaningless, discoveries. In Steve Jobs' style, connecting the dots can only happen in hindsight. The key is embracing curiosity, let go of short-term rewards and start exploring. Do it every day, that's the antidote for our daily habit mania.

"You're going to get stuck. You're going to be frustrated. Some puzzles will be hard, but all the puzzles will be fair."


The rudder effect

Sailing metaphors are a much used - and abused - way to describe the act of running a team or a company. A leader is "firmly at the wheel" and "motivates the crew" to "stay on course" while facing "rough waters". It all reminds me of a set of posters I once saw in some office: large pictures of a sailing boat, people working together on at the winches, waves crashing on the sides, a skipper seriously - but calmly - looking at the horizon, a large "TEAMWORK" printed in large letters just below the image. If you find it cheesy, count me in with you. 

There is one thing though that running a team has truly in common with sailing, and that's the concept of correcting. Rubber is controlled directly, you touch the wheel and your car, bike, truck, turns. A rudder, instead, acts by (re)directing the energy created by the propeller or, in the case of a sailing boat, by the wind. The main implication of this difference is a lag between stimulus (your movement on the wheel) and action (the boat actually changing course). Partially because of that, and partially due to a lower sensibility, the change imposed by the rudder ends up having bigger impact than we originally intended. The result is "correcting", a steering style that consists of seamingly contradicting inputs to maintain a steady course.

I find the same applying to the motion of a team. It is natural for a team, at any point of time, to be erring on one particular side. Too much attention to details or too little, too much self criticism or too little, too much dialogue or too little. Nobody has yet invented a mixer for human interaction: you get tempered water by adding first cold then warm, and viceversa. A good team can recognize the erring and correct  it by opening the other faucet. 

Back to sailing. A poor skipper will apply too much force in each direction, causing confusion to the boat and losing wind. A good one will use her sensibility to delicately adjust course.